What Would Google Government Look Like?

April 2009
By Christopher J. Dorobek

A new book could help change the way agencies think.

Imagine your world without Google?

I know it seems like an almost silly question, but go ahead—just try to make it through the day without using the ubiquitous search engine. Or, even try to make it through the day without using it in speech—“Googling something.” My guess is it would be fairly difficult. Google has become the way to find information. But it also is arguably the fastest growing company in the world. Are there lessons that government can learn from the search giant?

That is the premise behind Jeff Jarvis’ new book, What Would Google Do? In the end, the book is not really about Google. At its core, it is a management book—a primer about the ways that management is changing. And, it is about some of the real challenges that organizations—including government—are facing.

These challenges are multifaceted. One has to reach out to the public in multiple ways—the ways that people want information. And Jarvis uses Google as the example of an organization that is, arguably, the fastest growing company ever. But Google also has proved to be agile and innovative. It has completely changed the way people look at information and how they find it.

What Would Google Do? has many principles that speak to the challenges facing government agencies. The book taps into the idea that information is power, but that the real power of information comes in the sharing. Among the principles the book outlines are: give up control; get out of the way; and make mistakes well.

These three principles are useful particularly for government. They are almost directly applicable to government management, and applying them will be particularly challenging.

For giving up control, the book argues that Google does not try to be everything for everyone. To the contrary, it tries to link to everyone. Government agencies tend to want to control information. They become concerned about people misinterpreting the information that is presented. These days, people do not want to be controlled. Agencies still must perform their assessment of data and make it relevant to citizens, but they also must cede control and make data available to people in raw form.

Getting out of the way is related to giving up control, but too often agencies believe that they have to do everything. That is not true. A case in point is the District of Columbia’s remarkable Apps for Democracy program. Under former district Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, who was named the Obama administration’s chief information officer in March, the program gave up control by making government data available—and then held a contest for applications using that data. The result was more than 40 different applications incorporating everything from crime data to parking rules and regulations. They can be seen at www.AppsForDemocracy.org. Yet another example comes from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Jeremy Ames of EPA’s Indoor Environments Division came up with the idea of holding a contest for radon gas public service announcement videos. Rather than contracting it out to pricey professionals, the agency invited people to submit their own videos, and the results were remarkable. But just as powerful, the video initiative spurred people affected by radon gas to form their own social network outside of EPA. Essentially, the EPA got out of the way—and it all started with a video.

To make mistakes well is one of the most difficult aspects for agencies—and currently the most disconcerting. Government is terrible at making mistakes. Nobody tolerates them—not Congress, not those involved with oversight, not even the media. This approach has created an ultraconservative culture that is intolerant of any change or innovation. What would Google do? Google would beta-test everything. Gmail is still in beta, for goodness’ sake. That is largely because the company still is making changes. Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos recently appeared on PBS’ Charlie Rose Show, where he talked about the ability to make mistakes and how important it is to the culture of that company. Specifically, he pointed to Amazon’s attempt at auctions, which failed. But he noted that Amazon now has a successful business selling with third-party vendors. That business never would have come about without the auction failure. The moral is to make mistakes well.

Government leaders would do well to consider the points raised in What Would Google Do? If nothing else, it might spur them to think differently.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Washington, D.C.’s Federal News Radio 1500 AM.

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